“I fucking hate you!”
Such heavy words had become weightless in my home. Having four people confined in a smoke-stained, damage-littered two-bedroom apartment, the tension becomes unavoidable, and, somehow, natural. Whether it was my mother and sister going at each other’s throats verbally or my brother and I taking the physical approach, there was always an atmosphere of violence in my home.
So often during my childhood was I told that I “needed to learn to laugh at myself” or that I “took things too personally”. To an extent, both of these things were true. Maybe I did take it too seriously when my siblings would tease me for saying things like “Mean Girls is my favorite movie”. After all, that’s an unusual choice for an 8-year old boy who loves video games and skateboarding. Regardless, witnessing my mother slut-shame my older sister or chastise my brother for his interest in art and not academics didn’t provide me with the most comfortable environment to express myself. Seeing my siblings become so angered by my mother’s objections to their choices was my guideline for responding to criticism. Not to entirely blame my mom (she was doing her best as a single mother of three children), but the standard wasn’t high. My siblings, receiving the majority of this treatment, projected their frustrations onto me. While some of the torment was closer to the previously stated innocuous teasing, an equal, if not greater, amount was far from harmless. Being called annoying, obnoxious, spastic, or a litany of derogatory and/or profane terms did a number on my self-confidence, and that’s not to mention the physical abuse I met from the hands of my brother. Having this experience normalized by being told I was “too sensitive” forcefully buried my desire to express my emotions. Why should I be expected to laugh at myself when all I really want to do is breakdown and cry?
“Mom, I think I have anxiety.”
I finally brought myself to ask for help. After learning about mental illness in my high school health class, I reflected upon how my day-to-day experiences had been difficult for me, and not so different from what my teacher had associated with generalized anxiety disorder. I was 16, and I vividly remember the look on my mother’s face when I gathered the courage to say this. It was absent of concern, affection, or any of the emotions necessary to console someone. She smiled, and with a slight laugh told me that “it was normal”. Everyone experienced anxiety. This is my first memory of feeling completely invalidated. I let it go.
During my senior year of high school, I had my first serious relationship. I had been in other relationships prior, but none that I would ever attribute to being “in love”. They were all relationships out of convenience, and since I didn’t know anything else, I settled. Each one fell apart because I had no idea how to express myself, or even understand what my own desires were. So when my partners were upset with something I said or did, I had no reasonable explanation for my actions. What started as simple miscommunications became utter neglect of another person’s emotions. I would simply freeze up and become painfully confused.
This relationship, however, was different.
Well, sort of.
I still had no clue how to communicate. I didn’t know how to “read between the lines”. I certainly didn’t know how to describe why something someone did upset me, or even what their action made me feel. I felt bad, with no rhyme or reason, and definitely no resolution.
Regardless, I had finally experienced what I believed to be love. We spent every moment we could together, told each other everything, and relentlessly adulated each other. I would ditch school just to go spend time with her at her massive back-country Greenwich mansion and have everything provided for me. From great food and new clothes to luxurious trips to foreign countries, I experienced a level of privilege that most people couldn’t even fathom. The contrast between this lifestyle and my own was so alluring that I would constantly abandon my friends and family for a chance to have another moment of “bliss”.
Of course, this turned out to be utter shit. I still had my unresolved issues, and she had hers. The inability to communicate healthily severed our bond, and our silk-laced illusion of love began to unravel at its seams. One night, I had stolen my mom’s car after she fell asleep, and drove to pick up my girlfriend from a party and take her home. When I arrived, she was very intoxicated, and very, very loud. I wasn’t aware that she had been drinking and using Xanax (not that I would’ve been particularly bothered at this point in my life), and after I angrily turned down her belligerent attempt to continue drinking in my mother’s car, she cursed at me and called me a rather unkind term for a vagina. This event was the first of many times where our communication failed. Gaslighting like this became so standard that I truly felt I had no right to ever feel resentment towards her actions. I didn’t advocate for myself, but I still held on to the anger her words stoked, and then again, and again, and again. Threatening suicide became commonplace for us, and the more we failed to respectfully express ourselves, the more normalized it became. Obviously, this relationship went up in a hideous dumpster fire of malice and manipulation.
It pains me to recall how my mother had been on the receiving end of my anger and frustration in this relationship. Often I would be in a full-blown panicked state, screaming and crying on the phone with my girlfriend. Between the name-calling and threatening, a lot of the content of our conversations would be concerning to anyone. My mother would come to me and quite literally just offer to hug me, only to be met with me being excruciatingly cold to her. In gentle terms, I would ask her to leave me alone, and when she couldn’t bring herself to give me that space, I would only get more agitated and more violent. After the relationship ended, I reflected upon those moments with her and apologized. Once again, I opened up to her and told her how I had been feeling. Once it was understood that my struggles were not something I could handle alone, we both decided it would be best if I went to therapy.
“You’re sensitive, and that makes you special.”
My former therapist, Christine Danberg, LCSW, was the first person to say this to me. Never before in my life had I felt affirmed in my emotionality. Never in my life had I come anywhere close to considering that my intense feelings were actually beneficial and not the bane of my existence. No longer did I feel like everyone thought my excessive bouts of tears were a failure to persevere, or that my volatile nature when I was passionate about something was needed to be contained. Obviously, it’s important to control your emotions, but not with the interest of dismissing them in mind. Feeling strongly about something is an important sign that you are alive and that you have something to care about– two things that I am constantly grateful for.
Christine was one of three psychological experts that I saw during my two years of therapy. Visiting her gently lit, grey-toned office became the highlight of my week. There was an array of different toys for me to fidget with on the coffee table in the center of the room. My favorite was a yellow and magenta slinky that bounced so nicely from hand to hand. I constantly fidget, so having something to keep me occupied helped me focus and learn from her. Her gentle tone and constant smile helped alleviate any apprehension I had to sharing my feelings. Through a practice she introduced to me called dialectical behavior therapy, I learned how to practice mindfulness. By focusing my awareness on the present moment, it allowed me to understand what the causes of my emotions were. If I can understand the cause of them, I can more effectively determine how to address the problems. Empathy is the key part in using this to communicate negative emotions healthily. This doesn’t necessarily mean imagining what the other person is experiencing, but more so understanding that what they are experiencing is equally valid. The emphasis should be placed on understanding, and not assuming. The best way to do that is to simply ask.
Empathy and mindfulness are two concepts that I am consistently trying to use to help myself cope with my anxiety disorder. Another idea that gives me purpose when using empathy and mindfulness is passive communication. Passive communication is a style of communication characterized by an inability to assert oneself, complacency in the face of adversity, and a lack of confidence overall in the ability to express one’s emotions and connect with others. Avoiding passive communication is paramount for me in coping. Empathy and mindfulness are the tools I use to identify when I am being passive, and how to be assertive in expressing myself without being insensitive. Instead of focusing on blame, I learned to focus on sharing my feelings and finding a resolution.
As children, we’re always told to be grateful, because someone else has it worse. Not to discount the very real struggles that people face, but fuck that sentiment. Invalidating your own experience is a never-ending cycle of pity and self-hatred. Continuously suppressing your emotions because you don’t believe that you have the right to feel is a gateway drug for passive communication and unhealthy relationships. Unlearning these beliefs and harmful communication patterns is extremely hard, but the impact it has on mental health and interpersonal connection is immeasurable. By practicing what I learned in therapy, I’ve improved my ability to cope with anxiety and strengthened bonds with my loved ones. Although it is an everyday struggle to continue with these practices, the effect has been wonderful for me and my development into a mature, healthy, happy adult.